Lovely Humour But Ending Is Strangely Flat

Liz Vercoe reviews The Mikvah Project – at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Josh Zaré and Alex Waldman

Religion, any religion, may hope to bring happiness by proscribing ways to live but it can also bring bitter sadness to those unable to, for whatever reason, match up to its aspirations. The religion at the heart of The Mikvah Project is Jewish: modern Hampstead Garden Suburb edged by more orthodox Stamford Hill Jewish. And the mikvah, the play explains, is all about ritual cleansing of body and soul by immersion in rain or spring water. A concept new to many non-Jews.

Two men sing in Hebrew in the synagogue and the younger one Eitan, played by Josh Zaré, looks in awe at the older Avi, played by Alex Waldmann. In front of the audience, the theatre is elegantly transformed into a mikvah by opening up three blue-tiled, water-filled compartments in the stage floor.
The two men enter the space of the mikvah and undress. Avi prays and immerses several times while Eitan waits, after one half-hearted dip, to engage Avi in conversation. It is only when the conversation steers towards why his voice has not fully broken that the audience begins to catch up on their age differences. But it takes too long to find out Eitan is already 17, Avi 34. It's not at all clear that time may have passed.

The production, written by Josh Azouz and directed by Georgia Green, has many wonderful moments that do not in all honesty add up to a wonderful play. Explaining the mikvah, and how the water is collected and prepared in a very 21st century way, delays us finding out about the men's emotions, which is, after all, the reason we are here. Professional Avi is married to an unseen Leyla, apparently happily, his ritual bathing is in the hope of increasing their chances of having a child; Eitan is a teenage non-believer with a runaway mouth, no experience sexual or otherwise, and yet with a far more worldly view of life outside Judaism than Avi.

Josh Zaré and Alex Waldman

Once the talented actor Josh Zaré is allowed to get into his stride as the hyper-active teen-on-a-mission, he really brings Eitan to sympathetic life. Good-hearted Avi clearly likes him, likes being teased by him, and is entertained by his chat and energy. In return he proffers mature advice with enjoyment. Alex Waldmann successful conveys Avi's inner bewilderment as he is drawn ever closer to Eitan, a male Eve to his Adam. (Which is quite a feat as the constantly getting wet in the mikvah must be a bit of a chore for the actors who have had to master getting their damp bodies back into already wet underpants while nonchalantly delivering their lines.)

Unable to separate out what he is "allowed" to feel from what he is actually feeling, because they are so utterly conflicting, Avi is as helpless as a cork in rapids. At first both characters reel away from the forbidden yet unspoken realisation. "Are we...?" asks Eitan. "No!" says Avi. But with the innocence of someone who has not yet been hurt by life, Eitan soon has no confusion or qualms. To him love is love.

There is a joyous beach scene with Eitan and Avi larking about which is genuinely uplifting. And it matches an earlier scene in which Avi, delirious on a wave of feeling he has never really lived, never had a misspent youth, boogies alone at home for the last four minutes before the Shabbat brings him back down to earth.

These episodes and some lovely humour throughout have a vibrancy that unfortunately slips and leaves the not-too-surprising ending strangely flat.

Liz Vercoe

Images: The Other Richard

March 6, 2020